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Small Town’s Near-empty Coffers Threatens Loss of Police, Firefighters

August 9, 1992

CLARKSBURG, Mass. (AP) _ Monica McLain’s face brightens when a resident arrives to pay a tax bill. ″Money, money, money,″ the town clerk says, only half joking.

Clarksburg’s financial problems are dire, even compared to other struggling towns across the Berkshire Mountains, and residents don’t take kindly to pitching in tax money.

A tax referendum on Monday - the third since May - will ask residents to save their police department. Townspeople voted down the other two measures.

″There was a lot of hurt and a lot of torment,″ McLain said of the past weeks of trying to pay the bills for this community of 1,600 people. ″There were nights I didn’t sleep.″

Clarksburg’s fiscal morass got so deep last month that the entire police force, unpaid for three months, resigned. The six officers, all part-time, returned three weeks later, but their pay comes from a private donation.

The trouble runs deeper. Officials can’t afford street lights, and they can’t cover the $33,000 it costs to turn them off. School administrators may delay kindergarten until January.

The referendum on Monday seeks $90,350 in local property taxes above a statewide cap - an action known in Massachusetts as a tax override. The money would raise the tax rate by $1.59 to $14.27 per $1,000 of assessed property value. By local standards the rate is already high by a few dollars.

Some residents and officials - at least in private - are pessimistic about prospects for approval. Many people appear entrenched in the habit of just saying ″no″ to new taxes, said homeowner Butch Prenguber.

″When the money is not available, I don’t care what issue you put out there,″ he said. ″The most important thing is to put food on the table, clothes on their kids.″

Residents of this Vermont border town have suffered from sluggish growth, a 30 percent drop in state aid over six years, and hundreds of layoffs from construction, engineering and other jobs in nearby communities.

Leaders say the pain reached a peak earlier this year, often turning elderly retirees against young families, haves against have-nots.

″It was ‘My kid’s in school 3/8’ - ’My kid’s not in school 3/8‴ said Debbie Choquette, the selectmen’s secretary.

Many residents are shy about publicly stating their opinion, fearing ridicule or argument from their neighbors. Several people approached by an Associated Press reporter declined to comment or asked to do so anonymously.

″I’m a retiree, and I’m going to vote ’no,‴ one said brusquely and walked away.

At the town meeting in June, Forist McLain, chief selectman and the town clerk’s father-in-law, got so fed up that he said he was quitting and stormed out. He thought better of it the next day and stayed on the job.

But the police force did resign and only returned when a resident donated $1,000 to keep them working at least through the third override vote. Officials say the donor wants to remain anonymous.

″I think people don’t believe they need a police department until they need us,″ said Chief Mark Denault.

The referendum includes $14,000 for the entire police budget, $11,000 to help the volunteer fire department train and buy equipment, $42,000 for Clarksburg Elementary School and money to pay for street lights and the salaries of two Town Hall workers. The current town budget is $1.6 million.

Selectman Michael Wood said his board decided this would be its last attempt to raise taxes. He said the town will be ″playing Russian roulette″ if it drops its police force because it usually takes about 45 minutes for state police in Cheshire to arrive.

″You might have a domestic dispute or something, and when our police can get there in five minutes, it can be stopped,″ he said. ″But when it takes 45 minutes, you never know what’s going to happen.″

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